Code One

  • Published
  • By Capt Kory "Flex" Klismith
  • 51 OSS/OSC
It was a dark and stormy night. Well, all right, it was dark. My squadron was in the final week of a Green Flag exercise at Nellis AFB. This was a night week for me, as I had flown day sorties for the first half of the exercise. My flight lead and I were fragged for a night CAS sortie, and we were fortunate enough to have drawn two lines with heavyweight live ordnance. It was going to be a great night, with some good training for not only us, but also for our Army brethren on the ground. 

Our mission was straightforward, one we had done countless times before at home and a few times earlier during Green Flag. We were to depart Nellis and meet up with the JTACs out in the training area. To increase our training and sortie duration, our mission would be augmented by hitting the tanker just north of the play area, and then returning to work with the ground controllers. 

Though we had both flown in the area a few times before and were comfortable with the local procedures, our preflight briefing was quite thorough, including the usual task of in-flight refueling and the rare opportunity to expend live ordnance. Our squadron had represented itself well thus far in the exercise, and we were determined not to be the flight to tarnish that image! After the brief, we dressed, got our tail numbers, and Life Support gave us a ride to the other side of the flight line. Everything was completely normal through takeoff. 

It was on departure that I first felt the difference in the night's sortie. Coming to Nevada with its warmer temperatures, and carrying heavy ordnance, common sense and a quick glance at TOLD will tell you that the mighty A-10 was going to feel more like a pig than a "Hawg" that night. So the decrease in performance was expected. What was different about that night and less expected was the turbulence! The few and scattered clouds that night were well above our planned altitudes en route, in the target area, and in the refueling track. The turbulence was the only weather issue that would prove to be an annoyance. 

Upon entry into the training area, another flight from our squadron was already working with the ground party, as fragged. We held high to save gas and stay out of the way, as the other flight took its turn down the chute. The random encounters with turbulence were a constant nuisance, but manageable.  The clock ticked away as we held high, and before we were able to get into the fight, it was time to meet our ARCT with the waiting KC-135.  

With heavyweight bombs still on board, we recognized that refueling was going to be a little more challenging. As we approached the refueling track, about to make the descent down to our expected altitude of 15,000 feet, we got some news from the tanker crew that would make refueling even more interesting. Apparently, a previous flight experienced a lot of rough air at that altitude, so our only chance of getting on the boom was going to be up around FL200. OK, I know some of the Viper, Eagle, strategic airlifters, and bomber guys are already starting to laugh at me. I'd say the tanker types were laughing too, but they probably have a better idea of where this is going. 

There was no calm air to be found that night, but at the higher altitude, the perturbations were a little more bearable. The change in venue and its respective loss in excess thrust on our part, however, did combine with the heavy weight and the rough air to make this venture a little more challenging. My flight lead was first. After a few tries, he was able to stabilize and get a decent drink of JP-8. Then it was my turn. As I moved in from pre-contact, the rough air and lack of performance began to try my patience. En route to the boom, I made one of the worst mistakes a receiver can make, especially in less-than-ideal conditions: I scared the boom operator on my first attempt. This meant that on successive attempts, both of us were frustrated and more cautious. I know for my part, I needed to back off and hang back in pre-contact a few potatoes to calm down. As I tried unsuccessfully two more times to get on the boom, I pulled my power back too far, and it took me what seemed like forever to get back into position. After these attempts, getting extremely frustrated and embarrassed, we heard the next set of fighters checking in for gas. Realizing just how long I had taken, not wanting to hold up the rest of the train, I finally called "knock it off" as I felt myself getting even more rushed into a potentially hazardous situation.
From there, we left the track and returned to the impact area. Of course I was disappointed in my bumpy, ham-fisted performance trying to get on the boom, but I was at peace with my decision to cease my futile attempts at refueling. My flight lead agreed, and we left that discussion for the debrief, to concentrate on the rest of the mission. For the remainder of the sortie, the turbulence continued to be an annoyance, but didn't prevent us from getting our ordnance on target in concert with the guys on the ground. From our employment through to touchdown and shutdown, the sortie was completed without issue, except for some items we would talk about later on the ground. 

Where am I going with this? Sounds like just another CAS sortie and a ham-fisted wingman having trouble getting some gas, right? As it seemed at the time, it was. With the sortie complete, my crew chief grabbed my helmet and saddle bags, and I lifted myself and my damaged ego out of the cockpit and proceeded with my postflight walkaround. Using my cranium lamp, I completed the walkaround and signed off the forms. Still "Code 1." Time for the debrief. 

My flight lead and I rejoined in the Life Support truck and went back to the Ops building. I handed my 781 to the One Charlie behind the desk and turned to put my gear away, only to be stopped in my tracks by the Top-3. He asked me if I knew anything about a hole in my jet. Obviously the answer was no, I wasn't aware. I'd like to think I would've noticed something like that. Apparently when I had come back to the building, he was on the phone with MX. With a puzzled look on my face and a weird feeling in my stomach, I waited for him to hang up the phone. We talked over the details, and he informed me that I had left the aircraft with a crescent-shaped dent in the nose next to the refueling door, complete with a 4-inch gash in the sheet metal! I couldn't believe it. How could I have missed that? There was no way I had hit the boom that hard! Wrong. I did. 

After getting the word, we went back out to the flight line. I just had to see for myself. Wow! Even in the dark, it was an obvious oversight on my part. How could I have missed it? I thought I did a pretty thorough postflight. Then I thought about it. I took a close look at how I do my walkaround after each flight. This is where I realized the gaping hole (pun intended) in my postflight. As I would climb down the ladder, I immediately started my inspection by going under the nose. Upon completion, my last "big picture" look at the jet on my way to sign the forms was from the left rear quarter. There was my problem. 

I had a habit pattern for my postflight walkaround that was incomplete. Somewhere between my initial FTU training, with checklist in hand and where I was operationally, I had sacrificed a consistent, thorough inspection for a few minutes' head start on getting back for the debrief. In my community, as I'm sure it is in many others, our IPs preach a lot about habit patterns. Most of this is in regard to preflight operations, AO admin, and weapons delivery. One habit pattern that I'm sure falls out of the crosscheck of more than a few folks is a thorough postflight. I hope my wounded pride will not have been in vain, and others can learn from my embarrassing oversight. Remember, not only is the sortie not over till the debrief is done, but the flight isn't over until you've verified the condition of the aircraft after the mission is complete! 

Fortunately for me, our maintainers were quick to forgive and were able to have some fun at my expense. The sheet metal crew not only had the hole patched in minimal time and ready for the return flight to home station, but they also had drawn a huge band-aid on the lovely primer-colored patch! In the center, they labeled it "Flex-aid" in my honor! My director of operations, also having a sense of humor, made sure that I was piloting that jet for the flight home. It was all a fitting penance and served to cement my lesson learned.